Mark Reviews Movies

Starred Up


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Raphael Sowole, Gilly Gilchrist, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Ashley Chin, Tommy McDonnell, Frederick Schmidt, Sian Breckin

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 8/29/14 (limited); 9/5/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 5, 2014

The key argument of Starred Up is made by a character we imagine would be one of the most unlikely characters to make it. Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), the film's protagonist, has been "starred up," which, in the vernacular of the prison system in the United Kingdom, means that he was a juvenile offender whose crime and/or behavior in a juvenile detention facility has warranted his transfer to a facility for adults. After a particularly violent confrontation with some guards that includes Eric taking one of them hostage (by biting down just hard enough on a part of the male anatomy to which no man wants any dental pressure applied), the warden offers Eric the opportunity to avoid solitary confinement by taking part in group therapy sessions.

Eric jokes about the offer. If he goes to therapy and it works, he argues that he'll have a chance to be released. If it works with him, it could work for anyone and everyone. If it works for everyone, there will be less and eventually no prisoners, and the warden, the guards, the therapist, the judges, the lawyers, the police, and everyone working in the criminal justice system will be out of a job. This is not to say that Eric's logic is sound, but his mocking of the sincerity of the idea presented to him certainly is, especially given what we learn about him.

The central question of the film is whether prisons exist solely as a means of punishment or if there should be an ultimate goal of rehabilitation. Screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who worked as a therapist in a prison, has an opinion on the matter, but by the end of the film, we have witnessed the idealism of the argument dissipate until a resolution that is pragmatic in its view of a failed system and cynical in terms of a solution.

Eric is a 19-year-old whose anger is engrained in his personality. The standoff with the guards begins after he attacks a neighboring prisoner who approaches Eric while he's asleep. It's not a pre-meditated assault. It is simply a matter of reflex—a defense mechanism.

We learn that Eric is the result of the foster care system. His own father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) was and still remains in the prison where Eric now finds himself. His foster father was sexually abusive, and the details of the crime that led Eric into prison are left chillingly vague. There is simply a line about a face melting.

He is already disillusioned by one system, so naturally, he will distrust this one, too. It's more than that, though. It's a righteous sense of rage against these systems. One failed him in the past, and the prison system has already deemed him a hopeless cause. There's the implication, put to Eric early on during his stay, that some only see one way to deal with inmates in his position, and it involves a staged suicide. The deputy warden (Sam Spruell) appears to have it out for Eric from the start.

There's a nasty cycle suggested by the way this prison operates. Tell an inmate that he's a threat, and he will behave that way. Tell a man that there is no chance of rehabilitation, and he will prove that assertion correct.

The life of a prisoner as depicted here is one of strict routines, stringently followed. No one on staff teaches anything except when to get food, when to go to the yard, and when the lights on the cell block are dimmed. The inmates learn how to live in prison and nothing more. Men like Neville thrive because learn and abide by the power structure, which includes not only the guards but also Dennis (Peter Ferdinnado), an inmate who lords over the block. Eric is not too far off in his slippery-slope argument, because consider the opposite of his point. If a man like him becomes violent in the face of an uncaring system, how could he, after receiving no preparation in jail, possibly survive in the systems of the real world?

Oliver (Rupert Friend), the prison's volunteer therapist, insists that his counselling sessions, which focus on anger management, can help the young man. His rationale for taking this thankless work is that he has become accustomed to the rigorous structure of such an environment after years in boarding school. It's nowhere near a perfect correlation to prison, but he can sympathize with the prisoners' resentment.

The film falters in those therapy scenes, which condense the process into something of a quick fix. They serve the film's ideological agenda more than anything else, although Friend, who plays an idealist whose bitterness with the way of things is ready to boil over, embodies a weary wisdom about his patients. Observe the way he stands in the middle of a heated argument with his head facing the floor, knowing he needs to be a barricade while also avoiding a display unintentional favoritism by making eye contact with either participant.

Separately, O'Connell and Mendelsohn are quite good, but their scenes together, in which we get to see them quite intimately as the two sides of one coin, are filled with the palpable tension of two men who have a lifetime's worth of things to say to each other but refuse to do so. These are wounded men who know that showing that side of themselves is to present a perception of weakness, and neither is going to let the other have the upper hand.

The story's message becomes starker as its conflicts become simpler. A feeling of contrivance develops in the way these characters interact, as if Asser is forcing them into situations to get to a desired result. Even so, Starred Up is a brutal portrayal of prison life that is also thoughtful about the ramifications that life and the social philosophy behind it have on those who must abide by them.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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